Blackie Nelson has spent 75 years in the background, making frontmen and soloists sound good. Now the Helena-born guitarist will take center stage in a rare duo concert with pianist Bob Packwood, 7:30 p.m. April 6 at the Myrna Loy Center.
“It’s more of a conversation than a concert,” says Packwood, who for the past year has been playing with Nelson in the family living room where Blackie grew up. “We start with one of Blackie’s favorite songs from the great American songbook. He introduces a song, then I learn it inside and out, and from then on it’s just a journey. He listens like no one I’ve seen.”
A second-prize winner in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition (1988), Packwood is a master on his own. He has toured widely, and performed and recorded with Steve Earle, Hank Williams, Neil Young, and Cyril Neville, among many others.
But playing with Blackie, he says, is a great privilege. “He’s spent thousands of hours on the bandstand. He brings all those years into every moment, and makes them fresh. He can take music to a much deeper level than almost anyone I’ve ever played with.”
Both musicians acknowledge the piano and guitar are an unlikely pair. “They’re both too polyphonic to blend together well,” Nelson says. Their styles differ, too. Packwood is edgy; Nelson is as laid back as a summer wind. Yet both say they have found a depth in their musical journey that they’ve seldom found before.
“These two instantly recognize what the other is approaching musically,” says Ken Nelson, noted Helena musician and Blackie’s son.
Blackie, now 91, started playing at age 15. In high school he led a western band that did live shows on KPFA radio. He started listening to big-band jazz in the 1940s, and it was jazz that introduced him to his wife, Isabelle.
“I was working at the confectionary, and his mom sent him for a loaf of bread,” Isabelle recalls. “I had been complaining to the owner about his choice of music, and we had just changed it to Stan Kenton when Blackie walked in.
“He forgot to get bread.”
Aside from a stint in the Navy, and a brief job designing highways in Montana, Blackie has earned his entire living through music. He has played with Nancy King, Charlie Pride, jazz accordionist Art Van Damme, and has gigged a lot with his family over the years.
“Blackie has spent thousands of hours on the bandstand,” Packwood says. “He brings all that experience into every moment. There’s a sense of time in his swing that is effortless. He’s changed the way I play.”
The April 6 concert will be one of the few times in Blackie’s career when he takes center stage. For once, the upstage man who highlights all the other players in the band will get a well-deserved listen.
Tickets are $24; call 443-0287 or online at myrnaloycenter.com.
– Krys Holmes